The Joy Club member Roger Davies – who is a sitting councillor on Acton Community Council in the County Borough of Wrexham (Lib Dem) – writes on the significance of local elections and how you can have your say..
If you live in England, on Thursday 4th May 2023 (18th May in Northern Ireland) there will probably be local elections wherever you live. These could turn out to be very keenly contested elections for various reasons. It is the first electoral test of the Rishi Sunak era; the media is keen to make the story behind these elections into a referendum on the government and all the major parties have a point to prove at this time.
But in reality what are “Local” elections? Obviously, you will be electing councillors to represent you for the next four years, but what do they do? Let’s start at the beginning and look at the different levels of council.
Local council structure
The top tier council is called either a:
- Metropolitan borough
- Unitary authority
- County council
These councils will look after social services, education and schools, highways and the environment, libraries, waste disposal and recycling. In the case of unitary and metropolitan councils, they also look after the services handled by the district councils. A Metropolitan authority can also have other devolved powers like local public transport, adult skills and control over investment funds for local economic growth. These authorities can be either led by an elected Mayor or by the Leader of the council. (Just to confuse matters, you may also have ceremonial Mayors who do not act politically.)
The second tier is the District Council. They look after things like rubbish collections, planning, leisure facilities, licensing, pest control and council housing. These councils will be led by the Council Chair.
The third tier is the Parish, Town or Community Council. These councils are responsible for the more local aspects like recreational areas, footpaths and cemeteries. They are also consulted on planning and highways matters but do not actively give planning permissions.
As an aside, Councillors on tier one and two get a wage, tier three Councillors do not.
This next set of elections is further complicated in that some councils do not elect all their councillors in one go but one third at a time. (This is done so that you do not end up with a council consisting of a large number of first time councillors who are not sure of what they are doing). So it may be that, even though your council is having elections this year, the ward you live in may not be
up for election.
Where do councils get their money from?
The bulk of the money comes from a central government grant either from Westminster, the Welsh Senedd or the Scottish Assembly. The rest comes mainly from the Council Tax. (Rates, Poll Tax). Your local councillors will set the threshold for this. The amounts that the council spends can be eye-wateringly high. As an example, when I was a councillor on Devon County Council in the late 1990’s the Budget was in the region of £600,000,000. For the year that finished this month, their budget was £1,710,000,000. (£1.7 billion).
The council officers will help the political party in charge to set each year’s budget. Believe me, their advice is to always start with “Last year’s budget was £xxx,xxx,xxx so as inflation is y% we will need to increase the budget by that amount or the maximum the government will allow”. Once they have got the total they will then allocate it to departments and then find what to spend it on. On Devon County Council I was a member of the ruling party, our budget at that time was £600,000,000. At our budget setting meeting, there was a proposed contentious cut of just £10,000 in the library budget, which we argued over for the whole meeting, because we focused on this issue the rest of the budget just sailed through. I am convinced that the Officers and our leader did this on purpose.
How does local government work?
In theory, the councillors make the decisions and set the agenda. (The agenda depending on which party is in control of the council.) The actual work is done by the council officers, usually led by a Chief Executive assisted by department heads. When I first started as a Councillor, most councils still had their own workforce to get out on the streets and do the actual physical work, but now they have mostly been outsourced to private companies.
When your bin lorry trails rubbish down the street, you can complain to your councillor but all he can do is pass the complaint on to the council environment department, which in turn will complain to the head office of the outsourced company, which will pass a message back to the local depot requesting your lorry to be more careful.
Right, you have elections in May – who do you vote for…
How do you choose?
I suppose in an ideal world you would look at the candidates and choose the one who you think will do the best job for you as a local councillor. Or do you think that the national government is so out-of-touch with what you want that you want to “Send a message to Downing Street”. If there is a local issue – controversial planning permission, sale of local playing field, closure of you library – that is affecting you, you may want to elect a councillor who is passionate about this issue. Or you can simply vote for “your” party.
Because of our first past the post system, your preferred candidate may have no chance of winning. In these cases some people will vote to defeat their most disliked candidate by voting for the least disliked one. This is called tactical voting. For example, if you don’t want the Conservative candidate to win then even though you are at heart a “Liberal Democrat” you may vote for the Labour candidate to make sure the Tory loses.
The election itself…
I am sorry but by the time you read this it is too late to get yourself on to the electoral register or to apply for a postal vote if you have not done so already. But if you have elections in your area and you are on the register and do not have a postal vote then on 4th May you can go to your polling station to vote.
IMPORTANT NEWS: this year there is a huge change in the voting law. You will not be allowed to vote if you do not have a form of photographic ID with you. This can be, for example: a driving licence, a blue badge, a passport, any form of bus, tube or train pass, an oyster card, a proof of age card, a military ID card. If you do not have any form of photo ID then you can apply for a Voter
Authority Certificate. Go to www.gov.uk and search for Voter Authority Certificate. You will need a digital photograph and your National Insurance number and you must already be on the electoral register. But you will need to be quick.
I am going to make a prediction. On the day of the election the news camera crews will not rest til’ they find a polling station with huge queues outside caused by the election staff dealing with the new photo ID rules. I suspect it will not be hard to find. But given the traditionally low turnout for local elections it may be that the next general election could be more interesting. If you want to avoid the queues then you can apply for a permanent postal vote for the future.
I am now going to make an appeal, I know it is only the local elections, but they really are important to the governing of our country. Please, please, on 4th May go out and support your local councillors and vote. Your vote can make a difference.
Declaration of interest: I am a sitting councillor on Acton Community Council in the County Borough of Wrexham. I sit as a Liberal Democrat.
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